Gene Logsdon was a farmer. And if I were writing this in 1920, we’d probably just leave it at that. But this is the twenty-first century and farming has moved on from its small-scale roots. Especially in the US corn belt, where Gene farmed until his death in 2016. Gene, however, liked to do things differently.
Gene operated a mixed arable and livestock farm on 32 acres of Ohio soil. He ran an efficient and profitable enterprise, while eschewing the tendency of modern farming to expand acreage and livestock numbers in search of greater returns. He did not reject modern practices, but rather sought to adapt them to a more human scale.
In The Contrary Farmer, published in 1995, Gene – who, in keeping with his view that one should not seek to make one’s entire living from farming, was also a prolific author – explains why he farmed the way he did. The book is part manifesto, part homage to the rural way of life and part how-to guide for aspiring small-scale farmers.
As well as part cautionary tale for anyone who thinks an agrarian lifestyle is going to be easy.
At the heart of Gene’s farming philosophy is the notion of pastoral economics. The idea that the small farmer should do what they need to do, to earn the money that they need. That you won’t get rich from farming, but you can live from it. As opposed to the prevailing orthodoxy of industrial economics, where bigger is better and less is never more.
Gene did not seek to get away from society, though. He recognised that he operated within the capitalist economy, but did not consider himself of it. He describes himself and those like him as the ‘ramparts people’, camped on the edges of the Earth as a buffer between convential life and those areas on the map where dragons lie.
Gene was a strong proponent of starting – and staying – small. Where growth was desired, he felt that this should be done slowly and organically. But certainly not beyond 100 acres or so. He also advised strongly against borrowing money to buy more land or livestock, seeing this as the start of a never-ending cycle of debt-fuelled growth that is the bane of the modern agricultural sector.
Gene also recognised that increasing size does not necessarily equal greater profit. Indeed, he found that his small farm often generated more profit than those of his larger-scale farming neighbours, due to the amount of money they spent on the tractors, fertilisers and livestock feed that they needed to run their operations. As well as interest on the loans they took out to finance it all.
In addition to his thoughts on the economics of small-scale farming, Gene shares much in the way of practical farming wisdom. And so we learn about land drainage, crop rotation, the use of draft horses, the growing and harvesting of various arable crops, the value of meadows, the role of animal grazing in adding nutrients to the soil, and the process by which woodlands establish themselves when nature is left to its own devices.
Gene is careful, though, not to get all nostalgic about life in the countryside. As he says, anyone who thinks rural life is tranquil hasn’t tried to rescue a flock of sheep from a flood. At night. In a thunderstorm. There are no rose-tinted spectacles here.
What there is, however, is a staunch defence of the small-scale family farm. Of hard work. Of striving for contentment. Of connection to our work, to nature and to the communities in which we live. Of finding joy in life and in the world around us. If this is ‘contrary’ farming, then I think we could all benefit from being a bit more contrary.
If you’d like to stay up to date with what I’m thinking, writing and doing, sign up to receive my free email newsletter. Once a fortnight direct to your inbox. Including links to new blog posts as well as exclusive content just for subscribers. Written personally by me. Sign up now.
Book image: Chelsea Green Publishing